Why Environmentalism Needs Media Ecology

Why Environmentalism Needs Media Ecology

Much of Christian thought about the environment has proceeded from a dualistic emphasis on the eternal, spiritual aspect of humanity set in opposition to our temporal and material aspect. The result, particularly among evangelicals, has often been one of neglect bordering on disdain for human effects on the natural environment. As Theodore Hiebert (2011) observed, “[W]e have almost completely forgotten how central the entire world of creation is to our faith. Our best biblical interpreters and theologians, for many honorable reasons, have so spiritualized our faith that our real, physical world has been demoted and even demonized as a religious concern” (p. 343).

There is, however, encouraging evidence of a change in this attitude, particularly among younger evangelicals who are recognizing that environmental concern is a Christian theological concern. This recognition represents a move beyond an either/or approach to spiritual and environmental concerns, flowing from a biblical theology that recognizes an important place for the natural world in the plan of God. In this essay, I argue that theological reflection on creation care can benefit from engaging media ecologists as dialogue partners in the conversation.

The media ecology tradition has developed valuable insights that expand our concept of creation care to include a concern for the way human media and technique act as part of our environment. Current environmental concern is largely about what humans do to the earth; media ecology considers meta-level aspects of our technology, moving beyond an instrumental understanding of technology to consider the patterns of life and structures of meaning that emerge from the presence of technology in the human cultural environment. These patterns reflect certain ideas about the natural environment, and the possibilities of human action within it, embedded in our devices and techniques. The cultural effects of these shape both the natural and human environments, changing them in an ecological manner. In this article I want to explore some of the ideas of two seminal thinkers in the media ecology tradition and consider how they inform Christian theological reflection on the cultural aspects of creation care.

Marshall McLuhan and the Nature of Media

Marshall McLuhan’s key insight was that the form communication takes affects both its content and the hearer’s understanding of it. He expressed this in his famous aphorism, “the medium is the message.” For McLuhan (2003), a medium is any “extension of ourselves,” or any means by which human faculties are extended beyond the normal capacities of the body (p. 5). Language is an extension of the ear; typography is an extension of the eye; television is an extension of both aural and tactile senses. Therefore, all of our technological devices can be thought of as media. In some cases, media convey no “content” (i.e., information) at all, as in the case of the electric light bulb. McLuhan pointed out that the light bulb carries no information, and yet, as an extension of the human ability to see, it has totally restructured the rhythms and practices of society. “For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs,” he observed, so “whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference” (McLuhan, 2003, p. 20).

When a medium enters a society, it becomes part of the social environment. In the natural world, introducing a new species into a biome begins a chain of causes and effects that result in a disruption of the old equilibrium and the establishment of a new one. In the same way, the introduction of a new medium in a society overthrows patterns of life and thought, and requires the establishment of a new equilibrium reflecting the newly extended human capacity. Since each of our senses perceives the world in a different way, the extensions of our senses by various media contain inherent sensory biases, biases that new media impose on their users.

Nicholas Carr (2010) reported an experience of this in relation to his use of the internet. Though most of his life predates the world wide web, he observed that, “over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain…. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore” (p. 5). Carr attributed this to the patterns of thought he has developed over the last decade as he has spent much of his time online, searching, surfing, and sorting through the information available through the internet. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles” (Carr, 2010, pp. 6-7).

What Carr described is what McLuhan expressed in “the medium is the message.” Carr did not sit down to consider intellectually the nature of knowledge and information, weigh alternative approaches to its acquisition and meaning, and then develop a new practice in keeping with his contemplation. What he did was simply use the internet. And it was not the “content” of the internet that led to the change, it was the result of a formation which took place through the use of the medium itself. The medium itself changed the pattern of Carr’s thinking (indeed, the thinking of many in our day). McLuhan explained this kind of phenomenon using Aristotle’s concept of formal cause, a concept which has been almost forgotten today (McLuhan and Nevitt, 1973). But the idea is embedded deeply in the Western tradition in relation to the formation of virtue. As James K. A. Smith (2009) has noted, the concept is also central to the idea of Christian liturgy as a component of spiritual formation. What we do shapes who we are.

The theological ramifications of McLuhan’s idea are many. I will briefly consider two here. First, the fact that media have formal effects on their users exposes as naïve the idea that media are neutral.  The conventional assumption of many evangelicals with respect to technology is that it is amoral, and therefore strictly instrumental. The user’s intention, as expressed in the “content” of the medium, is therefore the sole focus of ethical and theological concern. Fundamentalist preoccupation with sex, violence, and profanity in movies is a classic case in point. McLuhan (2003) pointed out the error of this approach: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the content of any medium is the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watch-dog of the mind” (p. 31). McLuhan did not mean that statements made in various media are unimportant or irrelevant, or that the morality of the message should be ignored. His point was rather that in evaluating only these we are ignoring the medium itself, which is more profound in its effects on humanity than almost any message it might express. In one sense, since all media are extensions of ourselves, we are the content of all media (McLuhan, 1971). To attend to the shaping effects of media on ourselves is therefore crucial to any theological assessment of technology, because the ways we change ourselves have ramifications for our relationship to God and his purposes for humanity. And even if the changes are unwitting or indirect, we who invent and use media are morally accountable for their effects.

In relation to environmental stewardship, we need to take into account that technological changes affect not just the social sphere of human endeavor, but the realm of nature, as well. Returning to the example of the light bulb, we relate differently to each other, and to the created order of which we are a part because we have adopted the technology of the electric light. This change brings together both social and natural in a single ecology: the “city that doesn’t sleep” becomes possible, representing a change in human relations to one another and to the natural rhythms of night and day. In addition, this technological decision entails changes in resource use (supporting the manufacture of lighting equipment), energy consumption, disposal of waste, light pollution, and the like. While our thinking about creation care often contemplates these latter effects, it does not typically consider the larger ground against which the effects are seen as the figure.

In addition to pointing out the naïveté of an instrumental view of media, McLuhan also exposed its idolatrous trajectory. He compared the lack of perception as to the ecological nature of our media to the Narcissus myth (McLuhan, 2003). Narcissus, observing his reflection in a pool, was captivated by its beauty. The nymph Echo, who loved him, tried in vain to divert his attention to herself, but Narcissus remained numb to her and to everything else. McLuhan observed that Narcissus did not fall in love with himself, as some have interpreted the myth. He mistook the reflection for someone else. “The point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves” (McLuhan, 2003, p. 63). McLuhan offered this as the psychology behind the “gadget lover” phenomenon. In a technological society, we fall in love with our gadgets, not realizing that they are in fact extensions of ourselves. This dissociation suggests a kind of disembodiment—“discarnation,” as McLuhan (1999) named it (p. 50)—that fosters the dualistic thinking that has characterized much of evangelical discourse about the environment in the past. Seeing our technology this way suppresses both our connection to and our responsibility for its formal effects.

Beyond self-alienation, the gadget lover is estranged as well from God. McLuhan (2003) pointed to Psalm 115 as an example of the gadget lover phenomenon in more clearly idolatrous form (p 67). Idols are:

… the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see;

They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell;

They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk;

        and they do not make a sound in their throat (Ps 115:4-7 ESV).

Though lifeless extensions fashioned by human hands, idols are nevertheless invested by their worshippers with autonomous life and power. The Psalmist pronounced God’s judgment on this folly: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps 115:8). McLuhan (2003) went on to observe, “It is this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves. By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions” (p. 68). The danger of an idolatry of technology is great, particularly for those who do not recognize the danger because they assume media are neutral. This commitment to our technology as gods leads to a continuation of the technological spiral, which seeks ever more advanced technological solutions to the problems created by technology. Why else would we continually reject the rather obvious option of technological restraint as a solution to our environmental problems?

 Jacques Ellul on Technique

Jacques Ellul is best known for The Technological Society, a critique of the anti-human shape of modern life under the domination of technology. A common, though shallow and erroneous reading of Ellul sees him as a technological determinist, even a technological fatalist. The tone of The Technological Society is surely dark, and can give the impression that his message was a lament that in the battle of “man versus machine,” the machines have won. Ellul’s target in The Technological Society was “technique,” however, which is not identical to technology. And while his most famous book is a strictly sociological analysis, his theological treatment of the same theme is elaborated in a number of other works throughout his career, and these give a fuller view of his perspective (Ellul, 1968, 1970, 1975, 1990).

Ellul’s analysis was not focused primarily on technology or machines. His concept of “technique” was much larger. Part of the confusion for readers of Ellul in translation is that the framing of his work as communicated in the English title differs from the French original, La Technique, ou l’enjeu du siècle (Technique, or the Stake of the Century). The French title shows that Ellul considered the commitment of Western society to the idea of technique to be a colossal gamble. According to Ellul, technique is the use of means of any kind to achieve the most efficient result. Technique became the triumph of means over ends, and then became an end in itself: “the quest of the one best means in every field. And this ‘one best means’ is, in fact, the technical means” (Ellul, 1965, p. 21). Technique is an ideology, even a metaphysics, and has become virtually the unquestioned basis of modern society.

Throughout history, technique has been employed as means for attaining human ends. However, the rise of the sciences in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries proved to be fertile ground for technique to flourish and grow into the predominant influence on society. It is no coincidence that this is also the period of the industrial revolution, and the beginning of many of the environmental trends we find so troubling in our day. The issue is ultimately one of will to power, and humans have staked their freedom on technique in the quest to gain power over nature. Technique is the modern equivalent of magic, though without the mystical overtones. Ellul (1965) wrote, “In the spiritual realm, magic displays all the characteristics of a technique. It is a mediator between man and ‘the higher powers,’ just as other techniques mediate between man and matter. It leads to efficiency because it subordinates the power of the gods to men, just as technique serves to cause nature to obey” (p. 24).

The problem with technique in the modern age is that it has become an all-encompassing spiritual power, a new god, though one which is indifferent to humans. Technique no longer serves as the means by which we exercise dominion over nature for our own ends; technique has come to dominate us and force us to obey its demands. Technique even creates its own morality, one that is incompatible with traditional human moral values. In fact, Ellul (1965) observed, the idea that technique could be made to respond to human values is flawed: “It does not perceive technique’s rigorous autonomy with respect to morals; it does not see that the infusion of some more or less vague sentiment of human welfare cannot alter it. Not even the moral conversion of the technicians could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians” (pp. 96-96).

The great concern for Ellul in all this is the anthropological effect. Technique is an ideology bent on refashioning humanity, reducing us and removing our freedom. Technique creates an artificial environment and proceeds according to an internal, objective, and rationalistic logic, leaving no room for individuality and morality, and isolating humanity in its own technically-created world. In its quest for efficiency, technique requires humans to adapt to what it fashions, and for efficiency to be achieved, this means humans are reduced to mere producers and consumers. Humans naturally resist technical manipulation, so they must be refashioned into “mass men”: “the social complex, on contact with technique, becomes mass, rather than a community or an organism” (Ellul, 1965, p. 207). Human nature is not compatible with this massification, and so to palliate the psychic distress caused by maladaptation to the technical world, more techniques are employed to “fix” humans—through propaganda, education, amusement, sports, medicine, etc. The seemingly humanistic motive behind this is really technical: the efficiency of a technical society requires smoothly functioning human producers and consumers.

Ellul’s theological assessment of technique was that it is a dangerous, false hope, narrating a false eschatology. Technique became a bearer of hope through the narrative of progress, which casts technique in a salvific role, looking to improved technique as the means to relieve human suffering, and the achievement of a utopian future.  But the progressive narrative always elides process. “In every case, by a leap past a delicate intermediary period, there is entry into a marvelously equipped and balanced society with machines of unimaginable power that solve all problems either positively or negatively….though no one can tell us how we arrive at it” (Ellul, 1990, p. 17). As seen blatantly in early twentieth-century theological modernism, progress underwrites a gospel of human achievement, one in which the plight of humanity is finitude, not fallenness, and salvation is found through the realization of our inherent divinity.

But Christians, of all people, ought to know that humans are fallen, and therefore, our media and technique extend not just our glory, but our fallenness as well. Technology cannot be our savior, because we cannot save ourselves. Ellul alerted us to the need to be aware of all aspects of technique, not simply those which support a narrative of progress. He commented, “[T]echnical development is neither good, bad, nor neutral. It is a complex mixture of positive and negative…. It is impossible to dissociate them and thus to achieve a purely good technique. Also, good results do not depend on the use which we make of technical equipment. In effect, even in such use we ourselves are modified in turn. In this totality of the technical phenomenon, we do not remain intact” (Ellul, 1990, p. 37).

Conclusion

“We do not remain intact.” This statement sums up well what media ecologists have observed about the relationship between humans and their media. Healthy debate continues among media ecologists over the value and nature of the effects, their inevitability or reversibility, prescriptions for future action, and the like. But McLuhan, Ellul, and others in the media ecology tradition have made a strong case for an ecological understanding of our media, and this realization adds an important consideration for a theology of creation care. Recognizing that our technology are not simply neutral instruments, but that they actively shape the human and natural environments through their ecological effects expands the scope of what we must consider in our environmental ethic. Environmental stewardship calls for responsible care for our media environment as well as the natural environment, since both are interrelated.

I am proposing that Christian environmental concern must take into account first of all the concern for human thriving—not in an anthropocentric way which sees “man as the measure of all things,” but in such a way that God’s creational intentions for humans as relational and responsible beings are fostered. As McLuhan and Ellul have shown, technique is idolatry, and it has led to an outrageous ethic that has wrought considerable harm on both humans and the rest of the created world. No matter how it is tweaked or chastened, the ecology of technique is fundamentally incompatible with a Christian ethic of creation care because of its inherent opposition to the worship of God. The “hair of the dog” attempt to remedy technologically-induced harm through improved technique leads to further dehumanization, and thus further alienation between humans and the created order. In the end, theologians need to develop an integral, embodied understanding of humans, complete with an appreciation for the ecological implications of our technology, to dethrone the idols of progress and technology, and to expand our view of the environment to include our media environment as an arena of faithful service to our Creator and Lord.

References

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains (1st ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Ellul, J. (1965). The technological society (J. Wilkinson, Trans.). New York, NY: Knopf.

Ellul, J. (1968). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes (K. Kellen & J. Lerner, Trans.). New York, NY: Knopf.

Ellul, J. (1970). The meaning of the city (D. Pardee, Trans.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Ellul, J. (1990). The technological bluff. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Hiebert, T. (2011). Reclaiming the world: Biblical resources for the ecological crisis. Interpretation, 65(4), 341-352.

Marshall McLuhan (1971, January 19). Letter to Etienne Gilson, Marshall McLuhan Fonds, National Archives of Canada.

McLuhan, M. (1999). The medium and the light: Reflections on religion (E. McLuhan & J. Szklarek Eds.). Toronto, Ont., Canada: Stoddart.

McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding media: The extensions of man (Critical ed.). Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M., & Nevitt, B. (1973). The argument: Causality in the electric world. Technology and culture, 14(1), 1-18.

Smith, J. K. A. (2009). Desiring the kingdom: Worship, worldview, and cultural formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

 

This article is a revised version of a paper presented for the Christianity and Culture Consultation at the 64th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 14-16, 2012.

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About the Contributor

Joseph Kim

Joseph A. Kim
Joseph Kim is Assistant Professor of Bible and Theology at Lancaster Bible College, where he teaches theology, including courses in Christianity and culture, and theology of media. He earned his ThM and PhD at Dallas Theological Seminary. His dissertation, Marshall McLuhan’s Theological Anthropology won the 2011 Harold A. Innis Award from the Media Ecology Association. He is happily married to a wonderful woman, Nina (whose name is almost always mispronounced by those who don’t know her), and they have three daughters and a son who are progressively exiting the nest. 

Comments

  1. Joseph McDonald says:

    Very fine paper, and, in a tradition we tend to eschew (we are not fundamentalists, after all), amen!

    I also add, from the “ecological” side, we should be careful not to ignore Wendell Berry as a media ecologist as well as creation ecologist. His thoughtfully critical disdain for machine-based information technology (and all technology on an inhuman scale) is well known, as was Neil Postman’s, who much preferred hand cranked windows in his car. (Berry admits he has yet to figure out how to live in present day culture without an automobile.) Berry also refuses to own a computer and I wish I had his courage. I’d be out of a job, if I did, and would, of course, not be writing , here.

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